That the Obama administration's Iran deal is a work of fiction has been known all along, but now Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, is taking credit as its author. In a long interview with New York Times reporter David Samuels on Sunday, the world learned that Rhodes is "the master shaper and retailer of Obama's foreign policy narratives" who "strategized and ran the successful Iran-deal messaging campaign." Samuels lauds Rhodes as "a storyteller who uses a writer's tools to advance an agenda packaged as politics."
Welcome to the post-modern techno-presidency where everything is a text, easily manipulated by skilled writers and disseminated in 140 or fewer characters. Don't like the facts? Change the narrative. What really counts is "the optics."
In the midst of his fawning profile, Samuels exposes a number of lies behind the Iran narrative, or rather quotes Rhodes himself doing so. For instance, the first outreach to Iran came in 2012, not in 2013. I'd bet it came even earlier. Rhodes even acknowledges that there is nothing "moderate" about Iranian leaders Rouhani, Zarif or Khamenei. But these dates and facts conflicted with the narrative, so they were finessed, rewritten and sold to the public with different plot-lines and different themes. Outside Washington, D.C. this behavior is sometimes called lying.
The Rhodes narrative, at its core, is a simple tale in which a hero, armed with special skills and weapons, goes on a quest that requires a fight against the forces of evil. It incorporates elements of the ancient epic, the medieval romance and the eighteenth-century novel, with elements of drama splashed in here and there.
The hero, of course, is Rhodes's real-life hero, Barack Obama (with whom he "mind melds," as he apparently tells anyone who will listen). The hero's special weapon is diplomacy -- in the case of Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a.k.a., "Iran Deal." But Rhodes himself is also the hero of his tale. As he tells Samuels in one particularly dewy-eyed moment: "I don't know anymore where I begin and Obama ends."
Barack Obama works on a speech with Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications. (Image source: Pete Souza/White House)
In his tale, Iran is recast into a moderate regime through the magic of fiction, while the new villains are all who oppose the JCPOA, recast into warmongers: Benjamin Netanyahu, Ted Cruz, the majority of Americans. As Samuels puts it: "Framing the deal as a choice between peace and war was Rhodes's go-to move -- and proved to be a winning argument."
But it was not really a winning argument. Neither the American public nor Congress was persuaded, which is why Obama did not submit it as a treaty for Senate ratification. At best, Ben Rhodes is the author of a Pyrrhic victory ensuring that the 45th or 46th president will face the same choice Obama faced, but against an Iran armed with nuclear bombs. At worst, Rhodes is the author of a tragedy he does not understand.
Rhodes's narrative is not even particularly good fiction. Mistaken identities, fudged timelines, villains in disguise, and a two-dimensional hero are clichés. But the quality of fiction does not matter as long as consumers line up to buy it. And this is where Rhodes truly excels, as a relatively shallow thinker, adroit mostly at influencing even shallower thinkers and hoodwinking people too busy to bother learning.
Rhodes is proud of the way he manipulates a gullible and hungry media comprised mostly of repeaters pretending to be reporters. From his White House "war room," he and his assistant, Ned Price, reach out to their media "compadres" who are waiting by their iPhones, ready to transform the daily storytelling sessions into facts for the uninformed. Boasting that he "created an echo chamber," and unable to conceal his contempt for the minions who amplify his fiction, Rhodes calls them "27 year olds who literally know nothing." Enter the storyteller who provides them with lines. Samuels shows us he is in on the joke too, by pointing out that "Rhodes has become adept at ventriloquizing many people at once."
In his daily conversation, Samuels tells us, Rhodes lumps together nearly everyone who came before Obama (Kissinger, Clinton, Bush, Gates, Panetta) as "the Blob" -- the establishment that damaged the world so badly that only a magical hero can repair it. Rhodes tells Samuels that the "complete lack of governance in huge swaths of the Middle East, that is the project of the American establishment." This is what happens to foreign policy when it is entrusted to the unqualified and undereducated.
In eight months, Ben Rhodes can get back to his former life -- as he puts it, "drinking and smoking pot and hanging out in Central Park." And presumably writing more fiction -- this time perhaps the honest kind that does not pretend to be non-fiction. The entire world, except perhaps the world of fiction, will be better for it.
A.J. Caschetta is a senior lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum.